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** stars 124 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, September 25, 1998
Directed by James Ivory

Starring Leelee Sobieski, Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Hershey, Jane Birkin, Jesse Bradford, Anthony Roth Costanzo


Merchant-Ivory films tend to translate well to the small screen, even when they're grandiose, which this one isn't. This personality-driven picture will be a better rental than it was a theatrical release because of its episodic nature.

Inspired performances done in by disrupted flow of episodic new Merchant-Ivory pic

In the few days since seeing "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," the picture has grown on me a bit, in large part because of the supremely natural performance of Leelee Sobieski ("Deep Impact"), who stars as the teenage daughter of a gruff American novelist growing up in Paris in the 1970s.

The tacit, understated film is based on the novel of the same name by Kalie Jones, a fictionalized familial drama about her childhood in Paris and New England as the daughter of expatriate novelist James Jones ("From Here to Eternity," "The Thin Red Line").

"Soldier's Daughter" is the latest (and most contemporary) film from the producing-directing team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory ("A Room With a View," "Remains of the Day," etc.). Their brand of reserved yet unguarded character exploration is not the kind of territory usually weathered by teenage actors. But Sobieski is equal to the task.

A girl of only 16, she deftly navigates this subtle, emotionally succinct film, and is backed up by a strong cast, including Kris Kristofferson as her chiseled novelist father and Barbara Hershey as her bohemian mom. But despite high-caliber acting and potentially fascinating circumstances of this girl's coming of age, I was regrettably a little bored after the first hour of the 124 minute pic.

Just so we're clear, I am not one of those Guy Movie guys who by their nature dismisses Merchant-Ivory movies and their ilk. I often prefer an emotional drama to an action movie.

But this drama, a series of individually absorbing episodes in a girl's life, unfortunately is not the sum of its parts.

Opening during her early childhood when her parents adopt a French orphan, "Soldier's Daughter" catches up with Channe (Sobieski) in her teens and briefly plunges into her intensely personal friendship with a flamboyant, opera-obsessed boy of questionable sexuality (Anthony Roth Costanzo).

Because Channe, her friend and her family are such vividly realized characters, this first section of the story is enrapturing and Ivory's weightless directorial hand gives the Paris half of the movie an unrehearsed authenticity.

But when the setting abruptly changes to New England as the family returns to the States, that same light touch fails to provide any story threads that carry over into the American half, in which Channe and her brother adjust to American schools and teen culture while she goes through a sexual awakening and forms a strong bond with her father as his health deteriorates.

The episodes of Channe's life are so compartmentalized that developments which seem significant -- her childhood jealousy of her adopted brother, her entrenched relationship with the fey friend -- turn out to be merely episodes in her life that have no bearing on later events or even on her personality, demonstrating the movie's lack of organic flow.

Taken as a whole, "Soldier's Daughter" is on the prosaic side. But individual episodes are often superb, because Sobieski, Hershey, Kristofferson and the rest of the cast are so entrenched in their characters. In short, the acting is brilliant.

But despite all the powerful, insinuated feelings we witness from all parties, we somehow never get to know these people well enough to care for them. "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" is like spending a weekend in a stranger's home.

But it is a terrific stepping stone for Sobieski, who, once you get past her remarkable resemblance to a teenage Helen Hunt (somebody in Hollywood needs to take advantage of this), once again leaves a lasting impression with her beyond-her-years gift for emotional authenticity.

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